It’s a funny thing, the first five pages of a manuscript. They say—I’m referring to agents, editors, and publishers here—that the first five pages (or first few chapters, really) should have no back story; that it should be all about dialogue, action, placing the character, the protagonist, into a journey; the point of no return.
I agree that there should be limited back story, that it should use action and dialogue, and that the main character should start their journey. But the back story thing is funny. About a year ago I referenced an article in the 2013 Writers Digest which mentioned that you should stick back story…back. That you should wait as long as possible to use it. At first I agreed. But then I started reading more bestsellers.
It’s ironic, that article in WD, because Lee Child was on the cover. I recently started reading Child’s book, A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher series). Know when back story is used? Page one. Actually, paragraph one. Yup. And it doesn’t ease up. At all. Back story throughout. Then I noticed that the more books I read, the more this was the case. Take The Hunger Games for instance. Back story begins on roughly page five. Yeah. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, same deal, right off the bat.
There are so many books that do not follow these so-called ‘rules’ we hear so often from professionals in the field. The trick and the truth, it seems to me, is to say forget the goddamn rules and just write the best story you can. Sure, there are general guidelines to follow. For example, for a debut novelist, you should try your best to begin the story with a hook sentence. You should try to create some ‘showing’ scenes versus only prose describing and telling. You should place your protagonist on an epic journey that involves high stakes drama: Some kind of ‘death’ should be involved, whether it’s emotional, psychological, or literal. There should be the set-up of hurdles. At the end of the chapter, there should be a tantalizing cliff-hanger.
Those first five pages are what an agent will read and decide on. Ok, let’s be honest; their assistant will read the query first, then the first page, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll read the first five pages. So those pages, of course, have to be solid. Really solid. Make sure there are no copy edit mistakes. Make sure everything is spelled correctly; no logic issues. Make sure you describe the setting, the five Ws, etc. Make sure you’ve got those [high] stakes and that you’ve got the hurdles prepared and the journey ready. The first five pages establish the voice, tone, and the non-verbal contract between the reader and the author: This is how the journey is going to be. Is the reader willing, after page five, to invest hours and hours and days in reading this book? That’s the biggest question to ask yourself. Try reading the first five yourself with that question in mind. Have others your trust read them and get feedback and criticism. Take the first five to a critique writing workshop.
In general, yes, I would say if you’re a newer writer trying to snag literary agent representation and you want to be salable as an author, try to steer clear of back story in the first five pages IF YOU CAN. If it’s imperative to your story, then I say go for it; use it if it works. Remember, what an agent or an editor or a publisher may say about what they accept or not isn’t as important, truthfully, as what’s selling on the market right now. Check out Publishers Marketplace. What’s selling? Truth speaks for itself. Sometimes professionals in the field don’t truly know what they’ll take or what will sell until they read it and take a risk. Risk is a big part of this industry, especially on the agent/publisher side.
So, if you’re a new author and you’re thinking of submitting your book to an agent, my advice is: Write the best book you can, hire a freelance editor, go back in again, and then workshop the book and rewrite, edit and tighten those first five pages as much as you can. And wait until you’ve gone through at least four or five drafts of a book before you submit to an agent; preferably more than that even. We’re talking tight prose. Yes, more and more agents are taking on an “editorial role” in their positions nowadays, but that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t still have to be 95% there. Make it solid; as solid as you can using yourself, critique groups, and a freelance editor. And read blogs about writing and the current industry/market. Blogs like that of Michael Larsen of Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency. Do your research, write the best book you can, polish and edit, rewrite, redraft, and send that puppy out there only when it’s ready.
***I am a freelance book editor. Mainly I do developmental editing on fiction and memoir books. For fiction, I will look at almost anything other than children’s, middle grade, or picture books. For memoir anything goes. Please send me a query and the first chapter to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond asap with my rates if I feel I’m a fit for your work. Formerly a literary agent’s assistant, I became a book editor after being told by so many professionals in the industry that I had a ‘sharp eye and keen wit’ when it came to editing others’ books. Give me a shout. I can do a 5-10 page [free] test edit; that way you can decide if you’d like to hire me or not without dropping a cent. Currently, I am booked solid until early November, 2015.